When Wales hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1999, a lot of people asked “Where is Wales?” Well if the sickly-sweet Tourist Board-funded adverts are to be believed, Wales is “two hours and a million miles away.” OK, let’s dissect this for a minute. Wales is for example about four hours train journey or car drive from Cornwall and 200 miles away. Depending on which measurement you’re disproving, Cornishmen are closer or further from Wales than they think.
However, if you were to take a more pragmatic view, Wales is that big bit of mountainous land sticking out from the side of England. If you were to travel west from any point between Oxford and Sheffield, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll cross Offa’s Dyke.
Then of course there’s the sentimental view. Wales, in some way, is home to about six million people in the UK, a further two million in the United States and Canada, and a good few thousand in Y Wlad (The Colony) in Patagonia, Southern Argentina.
But to many outsiders Wales has no firm identity or purpose as an independent principality. Apart from a rugby team, a football team, a flag and an anthem, some wonder why Wales as we know it should exist. As Anne Robinson once so eloquently put it, “What are they there for?” To answer your educated, non-xenophobic, sensible question Anne, we must take a little tour of Welsh history and find out why Wales is held with such scathing disregard.
The Principality of Wales was once an independent collection of kingdoms, just like the rest of the British Isles, ruled by princes and noblemen sharing common Celtic traditions and rituals. Wales’ original Latin name was Britannia – home of the Britons. The native Celtic Britannic race, conquered by Picts, Scots, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and then Normans, spoke early forms of what are now the Welsh, Cornish, Irish and Gaelic languages.
Wales’ sense of national identity first emerged after the Roman Invasion of Britain when, along with Scotland, it remained largely Roman free due to the tenacity of its tribal armies. In fact the Emperor Offa built a barrier on the Welsh/English border to keep out these Welsh tribes, like Hadrian did in Scotland. Large parts of Offa’s Dyke still exist today, and it remains the traditional border between the neighbouring countries.
Following the Norman invasion and the defeat of King Harold (arrow, eye, you’ve seen the tapestry), Wales as a nation came close to vanishing altogether. However they fought on until one man almost secured Wales’ future as a nation. Owain Glyndwr was the figurehead of the resistance armies which took on the English and scored some notable victories against them. He succeeded in, for the first time, uniting the landowners and local princes to form a united Welsh force. Ultimately however he was defeated, and Wales was annexed to England. Glyndwr disappeared into the hills of Gwynedd, never to be seen alive again. Today Glyndwr is recognised as the last Welsh prince, and enjoys a reverence amongst Welshman and women almost as passionate as Winston Churchill holds amongst the English.
Although Wales had been annexed, somehow it did not become part of England and the language survived, despite large numbers of English people relocating and taking over land and jobs. These were the spoils of war – the English landowners who had funded the invading army were rewarded with new territory and opportunities.
Wales’ contribution to British history didn’t die with Glyndwr however. Henry Tudor, later to be Henry VII, was born in Wales and, following the Tudor family being banished to France, was smuggled back into the country at Pembroke to take on Richard III in the War of the Roses.
The town of Newport was created as a major trading post at the beginning of the industrial revolution, leading to the creation of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, taking supplies up through the mining towns of Cwmbran, Pontypool and Abergavenny. Mining itself was the core of Welsh industry in Victorian times, with thousands of pitheads springing up over South Wales. Cardiff became the most important trading port in Britain in the early 1920s, attracting business from all over the country.
In the Second World War, the hills and vales of Wales became refuge for thousands of evacuees from London and other cities like Birmingham. The industrial centres in South Wales received frequent bombings in the years between 1941 and 1943.
Post-war Wales continued to rely on mining as well as finding its feet in tourism – the Butlins resort at Barry Island and the Mumbles Mile were both popular holiday spots. People from the Midlands began to head west to Aberystwyth for their holidays, and ferry routes to Ireland helped put Holyhead and Fishguard on the map.
In the 1960s Wales hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. At Aberfan in Blaenau Gwent scores of schoolchildren and their teachers were buried after a spoil heap – a mound of waste earth produced by a coal mine – above the village collapsed and sent an avalanche of mud down the mountainside. The tragedy was headline news around the UK. The compensation given to the village went not to the victims’ families, but to the Coal Board in order to remove the spoil tip.
Following the Beeching Axe of the railways and the years of Thatcherism, industry in South Wales all but died in the 1980s. Mines disappeared, leaving communities with no work. The steelworks were scaled down with the plants at Port Talbot, Llanwern and Ebbw Vale all losing business after British Steel became Corus.
However one major factor has kept Wales at the forefront of recognition – our tradition of rugby excellence. Rugby Union was invented at an English public school and to a certain extent remained a middle class game. An observation once made was:
Football is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians. Rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen.
In Wales it was different: a fiercely working class game played by mining communities on their days off. Every village in Wales has a rugby team – sometimes two. The number of divisions, leagues and cup competitions rival the English FA for sheer quantity. Rugby is on the National Curriculum in Wales. Rugby is to Wales what baseball is to America.
It has been said although the actual home of rugby is Rugby School in England, and the best rugby-playing nations are in the Southern Hemisphere, the spiritual home of rugby is Wales, because of the passion Welshman have for the game. Even now in the professional era with technology and dual-nationality players Wales are still in the top 8 rugby playing nations in the world, and on recent form are almost equal to the likes of South Africa, New Zealand and even world champions England.
Wales, as mentioned earlier, is also represented around the world by its colonies, or Wladau. The most famous of these is Patagonia in Argentina. In 1865 158 Welsh emigrants left Liverpool intent on settling and establishing a New Wales free of the rigours and structures of the Anglican Church. Many moved to Canada due to flooding, and all that remained became Argentinean citizens when the Argentine government formally took control of the Patagonian region. Today the Welsh language is still flourishing amongst the inhabitants of Puerto Madryn and other communities in the area.
There were also Welsh on the Mayflower and other emigrant convoys to the New World following the discovery of America. In the USA the strongest Welsh-American communities are in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Los Angeles California as well as those in New York and Boston. There is even a National Welsh American Choir who perform Welsh songs in the States and Canada.
Canada also has a strong Welsh contingent due to the Pilgrims and the refugees from Patagonia. You can even find the Welsh language being taught in schools in the Saskatchewan province. Elsewhere in the world Welsh communities exist in Australia and even Ibiza, where San Antonio has an entire district full of Welsh ex-pats.
Perhaps Wales’ biggest claim to fame is that President Thomas Jefferson, carved into Mount Rushmore and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, was a Welshman.
Finally, perhaps the one factor of which Wales is most proud of. Despite our torrid history and numerous influxes of “foreign” culture, the last words of the Welsh National Anthem are testimony to the strongest link we have to the very beginning of our history: y Iaith Gymraeg – the Welsh Language. Whereas Scots Gaelic and Cornish are almost dead, Welsh is fluently spoken by 26% of Welsh people, with thousands more learning every day. It is compulsory up to GCSE level in schools, and is the foundation for a world-famous cultural festival – the Eisteddfod. It has its own dedicated, public-funded TV channel and national radio station.
And, if you’re wondering, the last words of the Welsh National Anthem are O byddyd i’r hen iaith barhau – o let the old language continue. I have a feeling it will.